Marvelous Marvin: The Comeback Kid

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To be perfectly honest, I had mixed feelings when I heard Marvin Garrett was back in the bareback riding business. I was thrilled at the thought of adding to the big bank of amazing memories already tucked away in my mind's eye. Marvin Garrett will go down in rodeo history as one of the all-time greats, and that's not my opinion, but a stats-based fact. The sentimental side of me is always sad to see such eras end. But I must admit to cringing a little right after that initial smile. The only thing sadder than one of my legendary cowboy friends retiring is one of my legendary cowboy friends competing beyond the bounds of his glory days and backsliding. That's the one thought that kept me from crying when Ty Murray left at the top of his game, for example. When I saw Marvin's name on the day sheet at the California Rodeo in Salinas this summer, I knew I'd get my answer. I'd either be thrilled to see an extension of his greatness in a deja-vu-like experience, or I'd be bummed and sad to see the master look mundane. I ran into Marvin and his traveling partner, Larry "The Wild Man" Sandvick, a couple hours before that afternoon's performance over in the contestant hospitality center. What a wonderful surprise to see their friendly faces. What a treat to get to sit down and catch up with Marvin. But the even greater gift was watching him ride that afternoon-spurs singing in unison-just like old times. Here are some clips from that conversation with ProRodeo Hall of Famer and four-time World Champion Bareback Rider (1988, '89, '94 and '95) Marvin Garrett, 43, of Belle Fourche, S.D.

Kendra Santos:It's so great to see you. What have you been up to?

Marvin Garrett: The last year I rodeoed hard was 2002. In the meantime, I've been raising bucking horses and putting on a roughstock series (the Marvin Garrett Invitational Roughstock Series) in the spring. We have all three events, and everyone from high school kids with a lot of potential to world champions and circuit guys who don't want to travel come ride. The series runs every other week in March, April and May, for a total of six events. It's really fun, and we've done it three years now.

Kendra Santos:How long of a break did you take before coming back?

Marvin Garrett: I never really quit riding bareback horses. I've gone to at least 20 rodeos a year the last few seasons, so I can exercise the world champions' exemption into the big rodeos. My son, Weston, is 20 now, and he filled his permit last year. So the plan for 2006 was to go hard in the wintertime and take it from there. Weston broke his leg (he shattered his femur getting off a horse after doing a "twisting cartwheel" on the way to the ground) at Fort Worth, so he had to go home and heal up. I figured I'd keep going to stay in shape so I can go with him next year.

Kendra Santos:Did I hear something about you being featured in a documentary?

Marvin Garrett: When I was putting on my series this spring, a guy from California who was a cameraman on the "Orange County Choppers" show and was familiar with the Sturgis Bike Rally moved to Spearfish. We met at a poker game at a friend's house, and got to talking. He decided he wanted to film my roughstock series. Then, when he saw it, he started thinking about shooting a documentary about my life and rodeoing. His plan right now is to do an hour-long show this year, then the documentary in 2007. My plan is to try to go to the Finals this year, then hit it hard with Weston next year. You don't ever take the time to stop and smell the roses when you're rodeoing hard. I've had some time to do that now. I've loved it my whole life. And I love it more now, because I know the end's coming.

Kendra Santos:Rodeo's tough, and no event's more brutal on your body than the bareback riding. Why, at 43, are you doing this?

Marvin Garrett: Some people are curious about my motivation at this point in my life, when most guys my age are retired. I'm doing this now because I love riding bucking horses and I love to rodeo. Physically, I'm not 21. But I also know a lot more than when I was 21. I believe I can get to the Finals and do a great job. I got bucked off of one over the Fourth at Belle Fourche. I don't think it would have happened when I was 21. There was a time when I didn't get bucked off for six years. I was riding for first every time, and when you're riding that aggressive it just doesn't happen very often. I still try to win first every time I get on. That's the main thing. It makes me mad if I make a mistake and get bucked off. It still wrecks my day, but I realize I'm going to get bucked off a time or two, because I still go for the gusto.

Kendra Santos:Are you worried about not riding up to your own standards?

Marvin Garrett: Because I'm rodeoing hard enough to get back in the groove, I think it'll all feel natural again. When it comes to things like reaction time, it doesn't really matter what sport you're talking about. If you don't play tennis every day, you need to go practice or you're going to get your butt kicked. Rodeo's no different. I've been lucky to be really flexible all my life. I run about three miles a day to stay in shape when I'm not rodeoing. When I'm on the road, I save my energy. Winning is about doing your best. I always got a kick out of making people excited that they came to the rodeo. When it comes to things like finesse and riding style, I'd think to myself, 'How can I take it to the limit and make these people feel like they can't wait to get back to the rodeo next year?' There's a joy to that. That's when it all comes together.

Kendra Santos:Why, do you suppose, are some people able to pull off classy comebacks while others just can't get it done?

Marvin Garrett: What keeps me at this level is that I don't accept the fact when I get up in the morning that because I'm over 40 there's only so much I can do because I'm over the hill. I don't need to slow down and be careful. Old is just in your mind. But the older you get, the more you have to pay attention to things and take care of your body. When you get out of shape is why you can't do what you used to do. I'm pumped, but I keep it inside, just like I always have. I was never one of those guys who jumped around a lot. I'm happy I'm out here. I have a lot of opportunities in front of me. I wasn't ready to quit when I slowed down, and I don't like being forced out of anything. It makes you work harder to get back to being the best.

Kendra Santos:I have so many happy memories of your days of domination, but I know you've had your moments. Tell me about some of those that stick out most.

Marvin Garrett: Bareback riding is very physically demanding, and it's dangerous. I got inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1998, and the next day had a horse flip on me in the chute at the rodeo in Colorado Springs. It was Harry Vold's I'm a Tiger, and it broke my riding-arm (left) wrist. I went home, tried to heal up for a while and fell out of the top 15. Then I went to the Coors Chute Out Finals in Scottsdale with a right-handed riggin'. I'd ridden bucking horses all my life with my left hand. That was difficult, but I managed to make it work a couple times, so I thought I'd keep going to a few more while waiting to get to use my left hand again.

Kendra Santos:That was about the time of the plane crash, wasn't it?

Marvin Garrett: Yes. About that time, (Marvin's brother and 1996 World Champion Bareback Rider) Mark, (Australian cowboy) Scott Johnston, (bull rider) Thad Bothwell, our pilot, Johnny Morris, and I were flying from home to the Cow Palace in San Francisco when we crashed north of Lodi, California due to a leaky fuel pump. We'd rented the plane, because Johnny's had broken down. When we ran out of fuel, Johnny kept it straight and we were gliding. We all just figured Johnny would get it set down, but we hit a bunch of trees and broke the wings off. We hit in the fork of a tree, and the engine kept going. The plane caught on fire. We all broke our backs except for Mark, and I broke my right arm. I broke my back at the belt line. Broken back and all, Thad opened the door and crawled out. Mark got me out, then went back to get Johnny out. Mark got everybody away from the wreckage, and moments after we all got out, the plane blew up and it was just a charcoaled mess. It was just like the movies, where it all explodes right after you get out.

Kendra Santos:I think they call them miracles.

Marvin Garrett: We were pretty lucky. God was with us. God's always been with me. And I've always been with him, because he's always there. It just reaffirmed that life can end at any time, so when it's over you want to be sure you get to go to Heaven and see your maker knowing you did your best. Johnny died 14 days later from burns. That was tough.

Kendra Santos:I can't even imagine. And yet, here you are, pumped up, fit and in fighting shape.

Marvin Garrett: I always do my best, and when it's all said and done, whatever happens, happens. I'm not going to sweat it. I strive to be perfect. That's something that'll never happen and I know that. But, the result of trying to be perfect is to be as good as you can get. People who don't try to be perfect make sorrier rides every day. I'm excited about where my life's going. I'm very tickled that I get another shot to get out here and compete with my friends again. I'll be traveling with Sandvick until Weston comes back. We do this for the love of the game. If you have to do this, it won't work. You have to be on top of your game and alert every second. You can't take any of this for granted, and you have to stay on your toes. This sport is definitely not for the weak-hearted.